Why travel is your child's best teacher

Melanie Gow explains how travel teaches your child empathy and emotional intelligence, important life skills that aren't on their school's curriculum.

4 mins

“When I grow up I want to be a Koala,” said my four year old, standing in a eucalyptus forest just outside Sydney, Australia.


“Because they eat leaves and I want to know what it is like to eat leaves.”

“Why don’t you try enjoy leaves now, and then you’ll know if you want to grow up to be a Koala?” I suggested, trying to head off unrealistic dreams like a responsible grown up.

“No, because I might not like them now. But I will when I grow up, because Koalas like them.”

Kids hey, they say the darnedest things! We were listening to a man tell us stories of the lives lived in the gum trees, and how only a few varieties are chosen by koalas. The one’s they choose are high in protein content and water, which means koalas rarely need to drink; he told us their name means ‘no drink’ in Aborigine.

Of course, eucalyptus leaves are actually poisonous and it would have been a tricky situation had my son taken up that suggestion, but being in that dry, heady forest half-way round the world gave me the chance to see something interesting about my four year old. In that moment I glimpsed sight of his emotional intelligence, he showed an astute awareness of his limitations, and didn’t set himself up for failure.

Before I had children I wasn’t aware of travel’s astonishing, and unique, ability to grow the more extraordinary, unquantifiable strengths in us human beings. I was aware of it’s universally acknowledged benefits, like being “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” as Mark Twain said; Instinctively I wanted to give them the experience I’d enjoyed, show them the one world they were a part of, but in taking my children travelling over nearly two decades I have seen how it truly grows people. At a more profound depth than our conventional world of formalised education and our media will accommodate.

Travel itself brings you back to a greater sense of childlike wonder, but watching children experience it while having a rudimentary sense of how things work anyway has educated me on Travel’s innate gift of developing people as round as the globe itself.

We are born with a sense that we are the centre of the universe and in control of all we survey, and yet we see ourselves as being insignificant, little, people who cannot really make a difference in the world. Intellectually we know better, but we believe these two contradictory things viscerally and live by them; and this makes us prioritise our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more self-aware, and have self-control. Be more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving. We want to be more emotionally intelligent, something that has been shown in studies to be a deciding factor in long-term success, far above mere intelligence quotient.

While our culture and education system is still debating the value of, and analysing the various methods of formally teaching, Emotional Intelligence, I have found that travel develops it naturally in children.

The first markers of emotional intelligence are self-awareness and self-control. People with a high degree of both have a solid understanding of their own emotions and what drives them, and they are honest with themselves and others.

By the time he was 12, I watched that first glimpse grow. When my youngest became frustrated with the sheer inability of his older brother to walk over the Col Lepoeder peak, which stands at 1430m in the Pyrenees, and walked off for the rest of the 20 kilometres left of the day. That was our first of 33 days on an 800km walk across Spain, and the next day we met an Italian man on his knees weeping because he had lost his companion. He didn’t know if he should go back and look, or carry on and catch up. An hour later, less than six kilometres later, that 12 year old was miserable and turned to his brother and said he had come on the walk to do it with his family “But I am the reason that nearly didn’t happen, I am so sorry.”

The next marker is empathy. Out there off the beaten track of your own comfort zone the ability to relate and find common ground with a wide range of people goes beyond just friendliness and the ability to get along with others. Having to pick up nuances of expression, inflection, and gesture to interpret a conversation in another world, to understand what is really going on, means you grow an awareness of how others might see things.

But most important, on any journey your survival, or even just enjoyment, relies on building, rather than destroying or controlling, relationships. It means managing the hundred relationships, and yourself within them, which cross your path in a day, in different languages, even in unspoken interactions sometimes.

We need self-awareness, self-control, empathy, and the ability to see the benefits of connecting with people, even those we don’t necessarily automatically like, or who are not like us, to navigate this world successfully.

One of the ways in which emotional intelligence is honed is through the exchange of ideas, stories and opinions, real, “in the moment” conversation. Conversational competence is considered to be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach our children.

Travel is the perfect school. The strangeness of being somewhere you don’t know necessitates starting conversations, and in unfamiliar surroundings every conversation requires you to be there in the moment. When travelling, you enter conversations assuming that you have something to learn; because you know that everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don't when you are the wanderer in a foreign land.

Listening is our access to understanding. Conscious listening always creates understanding. However, transformational listening turns base interaction into precious golden insight into ourselves, and expands emotional intelligence.

When your survival relies on listening you have to stop talking to hear; you can’t anticipate what someone is going to say when you don’t know their language or the culture, therefore you are incapable of thinking what to say in reply while they are speaking. Almost every conversation is the kind where you walk away feeling engaged and inspired, or where you feel like you've made a real connection, or you've been perfectly understood.

Really listening to someone, their intonation, the rhythm of hesitation and fluency, the far from random choices of words, and gestures and inflection is like being gifted a lucid map to their very core.

Any act of speaking is an invitation to someone else, to someone listening, to glimpse the startling, fractal perfection of your raw complexity.

In an organic feedback loop of meeting so many people who are so different to you, telling different stories, it helps articulate your own experience to yourself. Sometimes you are looking at something unfamiliar when someone local tells you how they see it, and that unlocks your experience.

Our forest guide that day all those years ago down under told us the Dreamtime story the Tharawal people believe. The aboriginal clans scattered along the coastal area of what is now known as the Sydney basin say the koala helped row the boat that brought them to the continent of Australia.

Dreamtime is the “everywhen” animist symbolic Aboriginal mythology and, as stories are not really meant to be literal as much as they are about what they mean, funnily enough the koala is still helping to “row the boat” that brings people to Australia. The idea of seeing a koala was something we really wanted to do on our trip out here, it pulled us half-way around the world; but now that thought came alive in a different way, an image spun in allegory.

That boy back then hasn’t grown up to be a koala, yet, and he’s not eaten eucalyptus leaves but, back on day 19 of that long walk when he was 12 we were facing the longest, uninterrupted stretch, and he knew I would really start to struggle kilometre 10. He is the one who dropped back, slowed to my pace, and quietly saw me through it. He didn’t think I noticed, but in three weeks I watched him grow from impatient to empathetic; and I couldn’t have taught him that so effectively without taking him out into the world with me.

You don’t really have to “go big” on travelling to be effective, simply travelling out of your own town means you will come across different normals, and different stories. The simple act of talking to people, actually listening, is to slowly, gently, form a connection; one that shapes the journey, a journey that can travel deeply in the inner landscapes of another human being.

Until the rhythmic pulse of listening and talking become the same thing; that constant, delicate, intricate throbbing becomes a profound and expanding exposure of yourself and life itself.

If we are to live fully, live lovingly, in this pathless adventure called life we need to throw ourselves out into the unknown. If we are to have any sense of perfection we need to learn to read the inner essence of a landscape, but most importantly, we need to master our own inner landscape.

There is no better place to do that than out there travelling. The best time to do it is 20years ago, the next best time is now and there is no better time to do it than with our children.

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Melanie Gow (Melanie Gow)Melanie Gow is a writer, speaker and photographic artist who believes life is a brief shot at something incredible. Her book, Walking With Angels, is the inspirational story of walking the Camino de Santiago with her sons, aged 12 and 16, and is available on Amazon. For more details about Melanie and her book, visit her website, myofficetoday.co.uk.

Main image: Young girl sharing moment with older relative in Peru (Shutterstock.com)

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